It’s time to push Aboriginal workforce development over council negotiations

It is far too soon to write anything definitive, but Prime Minister Paul Martin may bring about a major shift in Canadian Aboriginal policy. The emphasis in Ottawa may move from negotiating treaty rights to improving schools.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Ottawa’s Aboriginal priorities have very much been the priorities of a reserve-based Aboriginal leadership, a leadership intent on a broad interpretation of treaties and the maximum autonomy for Aboriginal governments. This year, Ottawa will spend nearly $9 billion on a variety of Aboriginal programs, the majority as transfers to band councils.

There are several reasons why the priority should shift.

First, the share of Aboriginals who actually live on reserves keeps declining. Despite very generous federal spending on-reserve, according to the 2001 census more than half of those who identify themselves as Native Canadians live off-reserve.

Second, the evidence is clear: off-reserve Aboriginals fare significantly better, in terms of education, employment and income than those on-reserve. However, that statistic serves to damn with faint praise. Off-reserve education levels are not good enough.

Third, in the western provinces the continued prosperity of many regions depends on the next generation of Aboriginals becoming more productively engaged in the economy than their parents. In Saskatchewan and Manitoba, one in seven residents is Aboriginal, and as many as one in four of all students under age 15 is now Aboriginal.

Those are three reasons why priorities should shift.

One reason why they may shift is that Martin has always seen himself as a minister of education — urging universities to do more and better research, calling on firms to invest in upgrading the skills of their workforces. The importance of better education has been a theme running through his speeches ever since he entered Parliament. He has started to use the same rhetoric in discussing Aboriginal affairs.

If a shift from treaties to schools does take place, it will be good news. At present, neither band councillors (who are responsible for on-reserve schools) nor provincial cabinet ministers (responsible for the majority of Aboriginal students, those who live off-reserve) are giving a high enough priority to the education of Aboriginal children.

According to the 2001 census, the highest education levels are among adults between the ages of 25 and 44. Among non-Aboriginal Canadians in this age bracket, 83 per cent have a high school graduation certificate or better; 58 per cent have a trades certificate or better. Among off-reserve Aboriginals, 69 per cent have graduated from high school; 42 per cent have a trades certificate or better. Among on-reserve Aboriginals in this age bracket, only 54 per cent have completed high school and only 32 per cent have a trades certificate or more.

There is a tight link between having a job and escaping poverty. Those without work must rely on alternate income sources, such as family members and social assistance. On average, such sources generate lower incomes than even low-wage jobs. Equally important, long-term reliance on social assistance among the majority in a community brings with it many social problems.

However, there is also a tight link between education levels and getting a permanent job. In today’s job market, a high school diploma is the minimum requirement for entry-level jobs. To earn a good income, a trades certificate or better is required. Given these two links, it is not surprising to find a strong third link between education levels and incomes.

These three links — work-income, education-work and education-income — are, in general, as evident in Aboriginal as in non-Aboriginal communities. Unfortunately, low overall Aboriginal education levels are condemning Aboriginals to low employment and intergenerational poverty. Even in a perfect world, one in which there is no prejudice against Aboriginal job applicants, Aboriginals will remain poor until education levels improve.

In a recent report published by the C.D. Howe Institute, my colleague, Aidan Vining, and I assessed strategies to improve education level among off-reserve Aboriginals. We reviewed four strategies:

Separate schools: enabling Aboriginals within a community to create autonomous school authorities.

Enhanced student mobility: enabling Aboriginals to attend good schools by eliminating school catchment boundaries and, potentially, by subsidizing Aboriginal mobility to better schools.

Magnet schools: designating one or more schools within a district that will concentrate on Aboriginal cultural studies.

School enrichment: providing additional resources to improve the performance of schools with large Aboriginal student populations.

As an agenda, we recommend a combination of strategies: enhanced student mobility, creation of magnet schools and school enrichment.

No doubt lawyers will continue litigating the often-ambiguous language of treaties written between Native people and representatives of the original European settlers. But, more important for the survival of viable Aboriginal communities than reinterpreting treaty rights is that individual Aboriginals escape poverty. For that to happen, Ottawa and the provinces must make a credible commitment to improve Aboriginal education results. Now that Canadians have made an electoral judgment and given Paul Martin their tentative endorsement, let’s hope he doesn’t forget his early ambition to be Canada’s education minister.

John Richards teaches in the Master of Public Policy program at British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University. The recent C.D. Howe report he co-authored is available online at

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